Writing a Book About Pork Made Me Go Vegan

Cambridge University archaeologist Pía Spry-Marqués' new book explores the "love-hate" relationship between humans and pigs. In writing it, she was forced to confront her own eating habits.
July 11, 2017, 11:17am
Photo via Flickr user A. Sparrow.

Bacon, sausages, chops, scratchings, ham, gammon, belly, trotters—the list of meat you can get from a pig is almost endless. Its use in global cuisines is just as expansive, from Chinese Jinua ham and Italian lardo to Spanish jamón and America's enduring love affair with bacon—not to mention the fact that Jewish and Muslim teachings forbid its consumption entirely.

Pork is prolific. But how many of us know why pigs became domesticated farm animals in the first place? Or that pork by-products are used to make cigarette filters and paint brushes?

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The answers to these questions—and many others—are explored in Pig/Pork: Archeology, Zoology, and Edibility, a new book by Cambridge University archaeologist Dr. Pía Spry-Marqués. She looks at every aspect of the relationship between humans and pigs from Palaeolithic times to the modern day, "through the lenses of archaeology, biology, history, and gastronomy." The book delves into the varied ways in which pigs are eaten around the world, the politics of modern pig farming, and the role that the animals have played in medical science. Despite the fact that Spry-Marqués turned vegan during the course of writing Pig/Pork, the book is also peppered with porky recipes, including wild boar stew, Cuban roast pork, and pig testicles in garlic sauce.

We gave Spry-Marqués a call to find out more about the book and talk all things pig.

MUNCHIES: Hi Pía, what made you want to write a book about pigs and pork?
Dr. Pía Spry-Marqués: I grew up in Spain and I began thinking about why pork features so prominently in Spanish cuisine and also about how pork is taboo in Islam and Judaism. Now, everyone thinks of Spain as a very Catholic country but that didn't used to be the case. One of the ways during the Spanish Inquisition of seeing who had truly converted to Catholicism was to incorporate pork products into the food culture.

It got me thinking about the many different ways that pigs are involved in our human existence and our history.

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What was your experience of pigs before writing the book?
Growing up, I never had any interaction or saw any pigs but they were all around me, all the time, because I was consuming them in many different ways. Pigs didn't feature at all in my childhood. And with the exception of Babe (which I didn't like!), all the creatures that featured in things I watched on screen like The Lion King and Sesame Street were things you don't get to eat.

From a young age, we make a distinction between what we eat and what we don't eat and in terms of what we know about food and where food comes from. The way our society works is that we hide certain aspects from children. Then we grow up and don't know the whole story, especially nowadays when many don't have access to farms.

Growing up, I never had any interaction or saw any pigs but they were all around me, all the time, because I was consuming them in many different ways.

What are some of the more surprising ways that pigs and humans intersect?
Pig by-products are incorporated into so many everyday things that you wouldn't initially think contained any animal by-products. I was very surprised to find out that many wines and beers are not vegan. You think wine is made out of grapes and surely must be vegan, but many wines aren't.

Pig trypsin is a digestive enzyme that the pancreas secretes in many vertebrates. Its main function is to break down protein in the small intestine and it's used in wine to break down particles to clarify and purify it. It's banned in the European Union but it is allowed in the US.

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I came across so many weird and, I guess, wonderful things. Another surprising one was pig skin. From a food point of view, we think about it as pork scratchings. But it's also used in acellular dermal matrices (ADM), which are a kind of surgical mesh that looks like thin leather. It's used to create support for breast implants and when people have abdominal surgery. That has a lot of implications for people who don't want to consume pork, like Jews and Muslims, who may be unaware.

The book explores how pigs are prepared and eaten in different ways, specific to different cultures. How do you think these differences came about?
It's all very much about the social context you grow up in or live in. That decides, "This is what we eat and this is what we don't eat." I think it's socially constructed, otherwise we'd all be happy to eat rats and dogs. That's why it's so interesting with pork and Judaism. Was it a way of having the group together and showing their identity versus other groups that were surrounding them and consumed pork? You can apply it to pigs and to all sorts of animals.

I reference Melanie Joy's book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, where she ended up terming "carnism" [defined as "the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals."] It shows that [what we eat and don't eat] is very much based on psychology and being in a group. Food is very powerful in that respect.

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What brought about your decision to go vegan while writing the book? Was there one little piggy who was just too cute to eat?
It was a mixture of researching this book and realising that it's not necessary to inflict pain and suffering on other creatures for a few moments of our gastronomic satisfaction, when our bodies don't really need to consume meat to thrive. Of course, there will be people who say otherwise. But if by not eating pork, I'm helping a pig not be tortured or factory farmed, then why not? I'd also just had my son and was breastfeeding him. Breastfeeding is a tough, draining thing. I started thinking about milk and how it didn't seem right that to have a yogurt, a cow had to be constantly impregnated and the milk taken from her.

One thing led to the next and it just clicked.

If by not eating pork, I'm helping a pig not be tortured or factory farmed, then why not?

Why did you still want to include pork recipes in the book?
Even though I'm vegan, I kept the recipes in the book because I think it's very important to learn how they link to many parts of our human history. It's very important to keep that alive and slowly we're losing all of this.

We're not just losing the food, we're losing all the information behind it. There's something called Huntingdon pie, which I'd never heard of despite living half an hour away from Huntingdon. But it has its stories. It meant a lot to the community of Huntingdon back in the day—it was about celebrations and families and baptisms. Now, it's completely lost. I'm happy about the fact that people are not eating pork through Huntingdon pie but it's sad that this part of our heritage is being lost because of the fast food, factory farm movement.

Did you come across any other ways in which pig is prepared and eaten that are being lost?
I talk about lardo from Italy which is the white, fatty bit from the pig's back. It used to be poor man's food and eaten very simply. In this case, the reverse to the fate of Huntingdon pie has happened. It has a link back to Roman times and has now become very trendy. It's being lost in the sense that it's now being used for things like pizza toppings. If you search online for lardo recipes, there are all sorts of strange combinations. My godfather is Italian and he first introduced me to the food. He's horrified that lardo is being eaten with dates or cheese or whatever. He thinks it should be eaten simply and savoured.

It's great in a way because it's bringing all these foods that people didn't used to know about to the wider public, but at an expense to its history.

What do you hope that people take away from the book? Do you hope that people give up pork too?
I'd love for people to give their food more thought and I'd love for them to realise that as consumers of pork or meat, or whatever it is that they eat, they are powerful. We're led to believe we aren't but in fact, we are. Your consumption habits will make a difference. And if one person does go vegan from reading this book, my deed is done!

Thank you for speaking with us Pía.